SALT LAKE CITY — Think of Brent Ashworth as a time traveler.
Ashworth has found that it's possible to connect with past people, places or events through historic artifacts.
"It really brings them to life," Ashworth said. "I think one of the great ways to teach history is to actually have an artifact."
A passionate historian, the 69-year-old resident from Provo owns one of the largest private collections of Latter-day Saint, American and world history.
Ashworth, an attorney by profession, has more than a million historic documents, books, objects and memorabilia housed in 25 storage units and other buildings between Salt Lake City and St. George. Among his treasures are a Bible that sailed aboard the Mayflower in 1620; letters signed by the Founding Fathers and items from famous U.S. presidents; a family Bible owned by Joseph and Emma Smith; a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth and the Hail Mary football from BYU's 1980 Holiday Bowl; some of the first Boy Scout merit badges; several guns and military relics; a number of Mark Hofmann's forgeries; and other celebrity memorabilia, such as Amelia Earhart's flight jacket and goggles, an outfit that belonged to Marilyn Monroe and a boxing glove signed by Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier.
That's only a sliver slice of Ashworth's enormous collection.
These and other items have now been preserved in a book titled "Show and Tell: A Unique Journey Through History From the Life of Brent Ashworth," ($59.99, published by Eborn Books) by Traci McFarland Fieldsted, with an introduction by media personality Glenn Beck.
Ashworth's collection has captivated Beck on several occasions.
"I can call him up about almost any topic and he'll say, 'You know what, I have that, or I have a piece of that, or I spoke to ...'" Beck said of Ashworth in a recent YouTube video about the book. "He's an incredible man who has collected what I think is one of the largest personal collections of American and world history, at least that I know of, and it’s all personal, one piece at a time since he was a little boy."
Although he is now serving an LDS mission with his wife Charlene in Boston until June, Ashworth spoke of his new book and collection in a telephone interview with the Deseret News.
Ashworth began collecting at age 7 when one of his grandparents died. Family members assembled in the backyard, built a bonfire and started throwing things into the flames.
"I remember pop's false teeth in the ashes and two uncles fighting over a pair of brown socks," Ashworth said. "I remember thinking, this is crazy."
When asked if anything was saved, Ashworth's mother handed him a box considered to be "junk," pulled down from the garage rafters. Inside Ashworth found 13 documents signed by LDS President Heber J. Grant. During the Great Depression when family finances were tight, Ashworth's grandmother wrote to the prophet asking for advice on keeping their son in the mission field. As a 12-year-old deacon, Ashworth read the letters and said he learned more about President Grant from those letters than anything he had ever heard in Junior Sunday School.
"Maybe I can get a collection of some of the personal items of presidents of the church," Ashworth said. "That got me started. Over the years, it’s become a way to become better acquainted with church history."
While collecting church history artifacts, Ashworth's interests expanded to include American and world history. He remembers receiving a portrait of Abraham Lincoln from an uncle and being enthralled by his father's descriptions of Iwo Jima during World War II. Piece by piece, over six decades, the collection grew and grew.
"I get excited talking about this stuff," Ashworth said. "I guess you can tell."
"Show and Tell" is an effort to record his personal history and how he acquired the collection. The book's writing and publishing process has taken four years, Ashworth said.
"That was the goal, to kill two birds with one stone," Ashworth said. "It has meant a lot to our family."
While of most of its pages display colorful images and stories, Ashworth also outlines for the first time his dealings with convicted forger and murderer Mark Hofmann in the 1980s. Ashworth and many others believe he was Hofmann's intended third target for bombing in October 1985, but he was persuaded by his wife not to meet up with Hofmann, who ended up setting off the third bomb in his car.
"The chief of police later told me, 'it was good you listened to your wife,'" Ashworth said.
Hofmann's next project was to forge the lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript. Ashworth now has many of those materials, he said.
"I've never really told the Hofmann story," Ashworth said. "I ended up with some of his stuff, including his efforts to put out the 116 lost pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript. I thought that one would be quite intriguing for people to see since there was never really a Hofmann trial."
As part of his Hofmann experience, Ashworth developed a special friendship with the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley.
One of Ashworth's most memorable visits with President Hinckley came when he showed the church leader the journal of John Taylor, the church's third president.
"He spent a good solid hour with me, that was one of the longest meetings I ever had with him," Ashworth said. "He was so fascinated by church history. We had some great talks."
In the book, Ashworth opens up about the couple's personal tragedy of losing their son, Sam Ashworth. The boy was riding a bicycle when he was hit by a Chevy Camaro with intoxicated teenagers inside and was left with severe brain damage. He later died, Brent Ashworth said.
In another chapter, Ashworth, a lifelong member of the LDS Church, tells about sharing the calling of Sunday School teacher with best-selling author Stephen Covey. One Sunday Covey invited some famous guests, Oprah Winfrey and her partner Stedman Graham, to LDS worship services. Ashworth enjoyed meeting the couple but walked away a little miffed.
"Covey felt it was inappropriate for the worshippers to collect autographs from the famous couple on the Sabbath and announced to the congregation that there would be no occasion to do so," Fieldsted wrote in the book. "As a collector of rare documents and signatures, Brent walked away disappointed for the missed opportunity."
In 2013, the LDS Church History Department honored Ashworth for serving two missions and helping the church acquire thousands of documents, books and other memorabilia, including items from his own collection. During his second mission, Ashworth also helped identify and remove Hofmann forgeries from circulation within the church's collection.
"I was told I was uniquely qualified," Ashworth said.
Reid L. Neilson, assistant church historian and recorder and the managing director of the Church History Department, said Ashworth is a legend in the field of Mormon book collecting. The church's collection is stronger because of his acquired materials and expertise, Neilson said.
"We are grateful for the many contributions and longtime service which Brent has provided to the Church History Department," Neilson said. "He was instrumental in the expansion and improvement of our overall collection. Given the breadth and depth of his valuable materials, the church made a major acquisition of much of his holdings. He is to be thanked and appreciated for his ongoing efforts to help us fulfill our scripture mandate to keep a record of this dispensation."
One of Ashworth's personal favorites in his collection is a piece of the original Book of Mormon manuscript with words from chapter 60 in the Book of Alma. The reason it wasn't included in "Show and Tell" is because it can only been seen with multispectral imaging, he said.
"That's one step away from the golden plates," Ashworth said. "It's a special piece."
Ashworth also has a piece of George Washington's undelivered inaugural address. The document was at least 72 pages long, and Ashworth would like to find more.4 comments on this story
One day Ashworth hopes to have a facility where the public, especially children, can view and appreciate his vast collection, a place where they can travel back in time and bring history alive. Beck may help him with that.
"It is my personal goal to someday raise enough money to build a museum that could house much of what Brent has collected," Beck wrote in the book's introduction. "It must remain independent, curated with reverence, and open for the world to see. ... His contribution to the preservation of our collective history cannot be understated."